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The Matchmaker: A conversation with Charles Best, CEO and Founder, DonorsChoose.org

Category: Financial Sustainability

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 edition of Museum magazine.

During a lunch conversation with colleagues at a public high school in the Bronx, former teacher Charles Best had a thought. Why not directly connect individuals with resources-strapped classrooms?

Armed with his mother’s famous pear dessert (to entice his fellow teachers to try out the new subject) and the help of some of his students, Best launched DonorsChoose.org in 2000. Since its inception, DonorsChoose has enables a full gamut of needs to be met—from a white-board for an Indiana chemistry classroom to an egg incubator allowing Oklahoma elementary school students to witness hatching first-hand to pencils for a poetry-writing unit. Part of the reason the organization is so successful is that donors can give as little as $1.

Editior in Chief Susan Breitkopf recently spoke with Best about the DonorsChoose model, how museums fit into it and a world without classrooms in need.

Susan Breitkopf: How did DonorsChoose come about?

Charles Best: I was a social studies teacher in the Bronx for five years, and during my first year of teaching, I found my colleagues and I were always griping about books that we wanted our students to read, art supplies needed for an art project and field trips to a museum that we knew would really bring the subject matter to life. Most of us would go into our pockets to get copy paper and pencils, but really we saw our students going without the materials and experiences they needed for a rigorous education. At the same time, I figured there must be people who wanted to help improve our public schools but were skeptical about writing a $100 check and feeling like it was going off into an institutional black hole. So classroom teachers had all this pent-up innovation and imagination that wasn’t finding an outlet because there was no source of funding. And people out there had pent-up frustration about not having transparency into their giving but wanting to help improve our public schools. That prompted my colleagues and me to create this website.

So what was the old model? What would you have to do to scramble for funding?

I think the old model was teachers spending their own money on really basic stuff. And maybe one in a thousand would research grant applications, but most grant programs have a lot of criteria, have a decision-making schedule, which doesn’t always correspond to a teacher’s timing. It can be laborious and painstaking.

How many teachers do you have participating?

As of today, s8,8oo public school teachers have posted 130,000 projects on DonorsChoose.org.

So, still a small sampling of the teachers nationwide.

That’s right; that is only a fraction of all the teachers out there.

But definitely a good start and a resource that they didn’t have before. So how does it work? Is there a vetting process?

There is a vetting process, and you might think of it as either the Wikipedia approach to vetting and validation or you can think of it as peer review. When a teacher submits a project request, we make sure that the student learning is fully explained. And we perform some automated checks on materials and price the request to make sure that the project cost is just right. But the person who reads over the teacher’s essay and sends follow-up questions is another teacher. Specifically, teachers who have really proven themselves at DonorsChoose.org, and then qualify to become screeners of other teachers’ project requests.

Is that something they get paid for?

It’s kind of the Wikipedia approach of relying on the goodness of humanity, and the status of being invited to be a teacher screener. You only are invited to screen and vet other teachers’ project requests when you have had 10 or 15 projects funded on our site and are roo percent punctual in submitting the thank-you letters and photographs that we compile for every donor. So hopefully, when we do e-mail teachers who have reached this kind of elite status, there’s a sense of pride that they’ve qualified.

Could you talk a little bit about how you cover operating costs?

I’ll give you the field trip example: If a teacher puts up a project request for taking students to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the first part of the submission process is a price quote. We need proof from the teacher that when they say the tickets to the museum cost $399, that they really do cost that much. It would go up on the public website, and when it was funded, we would contact the teacher and say, “Hey, teacher! Set up your order for the number of tickets you want, and the food that you want served, etc.” And the museum invoices DonorsChoose.org,
and we directly pay the museum, rather than having cash go through the teacher’s hands. If a bus is needed to get students to the museum, the teacher, would correspond with the bus company and have the bus company send us an invoice.

What projects are the most successful? Is there a category that appeals to people most?

The only thing we’ve been able to figure out for certain is that donors do gravitate toward project requests from low-income communities, which is great. Why we come to work every day is to deliver help where the need is greatest. So you might see that each project request displays either “high poverty,” “moderate poverty” or “low poverty.” That seems to mean a lot to our donors. The biggest preferences is for projects that need less money to cross the finish line. A project request that needs only $200 is going to be a little more popular than one needing $600.

Right now you’re focusing on public schools. Do you ever see DonorsChoose moving into another sector?

We probably get a call or e-mail a week—whether it’s schools in India or social workers in the United States—from those who would like to put project requests on our site. And we’re thinking about ways to extend our model. That could mean open-sourcing our platform or creating a how-to guide for replicating the DonorsChoose.org model. But, especially in this environment, our feeling is that we’ve got to first prove the model in the United States, in public schools, focusing on low-income communities, before we look further afield—even if that means a lot of folks copy us in the meantime.

You talked a little bit about taking your students on field trips to museums when you were a teacher. What were your favorite places?

One of my fondest memories is going to the American Indian Museum in New York. I also took my students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It brought the subject matter to life. These museums made the subjects that we were studying physical, vivid and lifelike. My students from then on had a real minds-eye picture of what they were reading about.

Given that museums are pretty intricately involved in education, would the DonorsChoose model work for them?

Usually, when people ask whether our microphilanthropy model should be applied to another big organization or another sector, I’m quick to say that the micro-designated giving model isn’t the best approach in some sectors. For example, if you’re giving to an after-school tutoring program, it’s probably not helpful if you say that your $100 donation should only go to that one desk in the corner of the room and should not be used for other operating expenses. I don’t think there’s anything efficient or valuable about that. But what the museum wants to do is already broken up into really vivid, almost bite-sized initiatives that work with the way donors like to fund: picking something really specific and expressing their own personal interests and their personal values in their giving and getting to feel responsible for a particular project. If that happens to jibe with how a museum would be curating a series of exhibits,
with each exhibit having its own series of displays or sub-exhibits, there might be a real alignment. The key is specificity and personality behind each sort of fundable item.

From your experience, do you think museums need to operate differently, or is the current model correct?

The only piece of advice I’d feel even fractionally qualified to give would be on fundraising strategy. Museums should move away from, “Write us a check and trust us to do what’s best,” and toward, “Here are the initiatives, the exhibits that we have in mind, that we’d love to do. Connect to the one that speaks to you most vividly and most personally.”

How has your organization been affected by the economic downturn?

We’re managing to buck the recession in the number of people giving on our site. We’re posting just about 80 percent gross in the number of citizen philanthropists giving to classroom projects on our site, compared to a year ago. So that’s encouraging. At the same time, the average donation made by people on our site has dropped significantly. And that could, in part, be because of a different type of donor coming to our site this year versus last year. But we know that the recession is playing some role.

In a perfect world, do you think DonorsChoose might be at all obsolete because schools are so well funded?

We would love to be made obsolete when it comes to the fundamental requests on our site. By “fundamental,” I mean requests for dictionaries, paper, art supplies—the kinds of things that the system really ought to be covering. There’s another portion of projects on our site for experimental, innovative, special projects that you would not expect the taxpayer to cover. In fact, I think a lot of the field trips to museums requests on our site might fall into that category. You know, a teacher wants to take their students to Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian. We’d love to have DonorsChoose.org exist only for those sorts of innovative enrichment projects that properly fall outside of what the system should cover.

Right, It’s unlikely that global warming will stop tomorrow and all schools will be appropriately funded.
That’s right. [Laughs.] We wish, we wish.

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